My clients often share that they don’t like conflict, and so they try to avoid it. But when I dig a little deeper, I learn it’s because they’ve mainly experienced negative conflict. Yelling. Hot tempers. Winners and losers. People pulling in opposite directions. When conflict gets toxic, that’s when teams get into trouble.
Yet the highest performing teams have a high level of conflict. In fact, conflict is good for teams—as long as it’s healthy and respectful—because it produces the best ideas and pushes the boundaries. When there’s no conflict, people don’t disagree, and the team doesn’t benefit from the variety of diverse ideas.
What is Toxic Conflict?
The Gottman Institute has identified the four most toxic behaviors in relationships. It doesn’t matter what the conflict is about, the power difference in the relationship, or even if the conflict is old or new. The presence of these behaviors are detrimental to the team or relationship. Let’s take a look at each of them.
There’s a line between offering a critique and criticism. A critique might sound like, “The deadline for this was last week, and I’m disappointed I still don’t have it.” While criticism sounds like, “You never meet your deadlines. You’re the reason this team is always behind.” Criticism attacks the person, not the task.
Criticism can easily lead to the next toxin, defensiveness. This is a form of blaming, as defensiveness shifts responsibility to someone else. A toxic cycle of defining who’s right or wrong is created, leading to an environment where no one feels safe to have an honest conversation.
Repeated criticism and defensiveness paves the way for contempt, which is the most poisonous of the four toxins. If you get annoyed simply by seeing someone’s name in your inbox, that’s a good sign contempt is present in the relationship. You don’t need to hurl insults for contempt to show up in body language or tone.
Once there’s contempt in the picture, stonewalling isn’t far behind. Rather than confront the issues, people who stonewall disengage. They storm out of a room. Turn off their Zoom video. Don’t reply to an email. They may still be present, but they’re no longer investing in the relationship—often because they’re emotionally flooded.
What Can You Do?
Toxic conflict shows up in teams when they haven’t taken the time to design how they want to engage in positive conflict. But conflict doesn’t mean your team or relationship is doomed. Antidotes are available if you choose to use them.
Because let’s acknowledge… It’s hard to be thoughtful when someone’s being a jerk. However, when you’re Thoughtfully Fit, you always have control and you always have choices. You control what you say and do. And you have choices in how you treat others. For example:
- If you find yourself blaming, choose curiosity and ask some questions to understand them better.
- If you’re getting defensive, choose to identify a teeny tiny part of the issue that you can take responsibility for.
- If contempt is creeping in, choose to have a conversation—and figure out how to let go of, or at least set aside, the anger.
- And if you’re stonewalling, take a break (be sure to let the other person know), and then choose to re-engage.
But What If They Are the Problem?
You might find yourself saying, “But Darcy, it’s not me. My boss blames me for everything. My colleague is the defensive one. She’s showing contempt towards me. The other guy… he’s stonewalling.”
I believe you. But it starts with you. Because we can’t change them.
You control you. You control how you show up in any situation. And sometimes it just takes one person to shift the dynamic of the team. You can choose to have that person be you.
The next time you’re noticing toxic conflict:
- Pause and get off autopilot. Resist your knee-jerk reaction.
- Think about what toxin is present and what choices you have.
- Act in a healthy, respectful manner.
Can this really be done in a minute? Here’s the truth. It can take a lot of work to remove toxins from a team. But yes, it only takes one minute to shift away from negative conflict.
Recommendation- One of my favorite books from The Gottman Institute is The Relationship Cure. The book provides a number of ideas on how to create emotional connections in order to repair relationships. The strategies presented can be applied to both family and professional relationships.